After my husband passed away when our children were just 5 and 8, there was a six-week period of my life where I slept with the moms from my neighborhood. Each morning, I would wake next to a different mom and feel as if I had a more intimate experience than if I’d had a one-night stand. Before I slept with these moms, I spent 12 years sleeping next to the man who I had thought I’d know the rest of my life, and whose sudden loss forced me into a world nobody wants to visit.
These moms were the women I met when I attended new moms groups, spent endless afternoons at the playground, school functions and in my apartment building lobby as we chatted about strollers and weaning. Now, they were attempting to keep me alive, using all of their mothering skills to nurture a friend.
Most of them did the walk of shame in the early morning. Occasionally one could be seen carrying a pillow as they rushed home to help their husbands with the kids, leaving me to try to make sense of my life while I made lunches for my kids to take to camp.
In caring for me, it felt as if the moms bestowed enough energy on me so I could mother my own kids.
Every day, I would play the role of loving mom, the role I had known for the past eight years. And although I hated to ask for help, each night after dinner, a mom would arrive and help me put my kids to bed. Sacrificing bedtime with their own families, they came bearing desserts or wine. They read my 5-year-old son bedtime stories, helped my 8-year-old daughter shampoo her hair, and then after both kids were asleep, we would talk. They watched me take my first bites of food, after days of being unable to swallow. They saw me cry. They saw me vulnerable. I was exposed.
Although I’ve had drinks with these moms for years, I had vacationed with some, and thought I was fairly close to many of them, I didn’t actually truly know any of them until my husband died. Lying in bed, our conversations were more honest than those you might even have with your spouse. Ideologies were admitted, dreams they had forgotten were resurrected, truths about their own marriages were told, histories meant to be hidden were spoken aloud.
In telling me their stories, I think they were trying to tell me that life would get easier again, but I was doubtful. I didn’t think I’d be able to sleep alone again, or drive my car without crying so much I had to pull over, or go on the subway without having an anxiety attack. These women were there to show that I was loved, to offer hope and never pity, to this once-optimistic person who was drowning in grief.
Before my husband died, I hadn’t really suffered any real loss. My parents are still living and together. My sister and her family are still intact. Although my life wasn’t problem free, there was nothing that even came close to being a 38-year-old widow of two small kids. My husband’s death made me feel like I was a character in a Kafka novel. I was on trial for a crime I didn’t commit and I was left on unfamiliar terrain without the person I relied on the most.
One night as I was putting my kids to bed, my son asked me if he was a half-orphan. This was the thought going through my mind as I told the attorney that I might need to throw up as I signed my new will. Because if I died, my kids would be alone. Half-orphan seemed fitting, as if they were walking between two worlds, the one of comfort of having a parent and another that resulted in instant abandonment like Pippi Longstocking or Little Orphan Annie.
The young attorney looked at me, and his eyes teared up. I could see from the photos on his desk that our kids were around the same age. He said after a slight pause, “I’m an estate attorney, so I’ve seen a lot, and I can tell you nobody leaves this world without getting the s— kicked out of them.”
Each night when I heard the moms tell their stories, I realized we never really know what people carry with them and how strong they are and how they make it through the day. We don’t tell strangers about our deepest issues. Normally, we talk about TV shows or our unhappiness with standardized testing and the current political situation. Occasionally, a mom will bring up sex. But mostly, our conversations revolved around horror stories about stomach flus or our lack of closet space. And, of course, other people.
As the weeks went by, I didn’t need to sleep with moms anymore. The day my son started kindergarten was the first night on my own. I had the moms in my building on standby, in case I needed to send a late-night text asking them to sleep over. But I didn’t.
When I was a new mom, I found these moms made parenting a newborn bearable. Now they were making my broken life livable.
You never know who is going to hold you up when you fall. You cultivate friendships in your life and as you get older they either get stronger or fade away. It’s not ideal to have to suffer a devastating loss to realize how close you are to your friends or how much you mean to people. But it was during this period, despite the inevitable self-absorption of grief, that I truly saw the beauty in mothers.
Alison Lowenstein is a freelance writer. She tweets @cityweekendsnyc.
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